In starting out with this new format, I’ll try copy-pasting my essay from last week, originally dated November 20:
Addictions, Aspirations, Motivations and Consolations
In a few different contexts over the past week or two I’ve been asked to consider questions of addiction, both chemical and psychological. What counts as an addiction? What sorts of things is it justifiable to say that a person is addicted to? Is there any real difference between habits and addictions? Are all addictions harmful by definition, or are there also harmless ones? I’m not any medical expert in these matters, but within my limits I think these questions would be worth poking through a bit. If someone with greater expertise on these matters cares to correct my perspectives, please feel free to do so.
So as to keep this from being based on either my own personal way of using the term, or on some out-dated academic definition, I turn to the Wikipedia description of what counts as an addiction these days: a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences, as deemed by the user himself to his individual health, mental state, or social life. The “deemed by the user himself” bit seems to be a rather abstract requirement, but other than that such a definition makes perfect sense. So it does have to be something harmful to count as an addiction, and in theory a bit more intense than just a habit. The additional qualification, from earlier in the same article, that these “harmful consequences” can include guilt, shame, fear, hopelessness, failure, rejection, anxiety, or humiliation symptoms associated with, among other medical conditions, depression and epilepsy makes for the framework of a workable definition, though not really a perfect one.
To the best of my knowledge the only chemical substance I am somewhat physically addicted to is caffeine. Even that is not entirely true; some days I can go until after lunch forgetting to have a coffee. I have also given up all forms of caffeine for Lent a few times during the course of my teaching career, so I am satisfied that I remain in control of the extent to which I rely on this chemical in my day to day life. But even so I do tend to rely on it. Living without it can cause me headaches, drowsiness and a lack of mental focus at the very least. Does this count as a compulsion? Maybe, though if you define compulsion as a lack of the ability to choose whether or not to indulge, it’s never gone that far for me. Coffee in particular may be rather dangerous to my stomach lining, but what I see as the improved mental state and potential for social life that caffeine enables me to have, makes me tend to overlook such risks. Am I being honest with myself here, or am I just making excuses for my addiction?
What if someone feels the same about the use of tobacco? It might well be something that improves their mental state and social life, at the expense of some risk to their health. They might well weigh the plusses and minuses and decide that it is worth it for them. They might even experimentally quit entirely for months at a time to convince themselves that they are able to do so. Does that still count as an addiction? Does that make the practice rationally justifiable? Only if the likelihood of a painful and premature death on account of this habit really doesn’t make any difference to them. Eventually, if our cultures are at all rational, and the recognition of this problem becomes widely recognized, the social benefits of smoking (and chewing) the stuff should pretty much automatically disappear. At that point it might still be possible for some to claim that tobacco sharpens their mind and improves their mood, but justifying the habit on those grounds alone isn’t easy, even if there is medical evidence to that effect as well. Or is all of this hypothetical? Is the idea of our Western culture being rational an absurdity to begin with? Perhaps, but in that case the only rational argument to be made for smoking being something other than an addiction is that rationality doesn’t work where the smoker comes from.
The traditional use of the term “addiction” has been in relation to chemicals getting into ones bloodstream, crossing the blood-brain barrier, and messing with the chemistry in there to the extent that the brain starts needing these chemicals to function “normally”. This “normally” needs to be in quotes, of course, because the version of normal which the drug induces in its user is rather different from what was going on in the brain without the drug. Thus it goes with the concept of addiction that “normal” brain function has been fundamentally altered. But then that raises the question of what parts of “normal” behavior and brain function we really need to be defending.If a person is suffering from serious illness or injury, and they are in continuous physical pain, is there any good moral argument to be made for keeping that pain going just because it is a natural and “normal” function of the brain and nervous system? Or if a person, for some good rational reason, feels rather crappy about the state of his or her life, should the normality of that crappy feeling be grounds for preventing him/her from looking for a temporary chemical escape from such a feeling? These can be rather complicated questions. Part of the issue is whether the pain is serving a useful purpose––causing the person to avoid doing things that would make the damage worse or stop it from healing on its own. If someone has been through orthopedic surgery, a certain amount of pain can be useful for telling him when it is or isn’t safe to start putting weight on the repaired joint again. A lack of a sense of pain can cause people to take unreasonable risks and mess themselves up in worse ways than what caused their original pain. That can certainly apply to emotional pain as well. But insisting that someone suffer pain for no other reason than that it is “normal” is really unjustifiably cruel.
So sometimes chemical assistance is necessary to block pain, but why should it be limited to that? Why not allow people, including yourself, the sorts of pleasures that various chemicals in the bloodstream can enhance so effectively? Why not party to your heart’s content as much as you are able? What’s wrong with physical pleasure for its own sake.
I could go back to my own theory of happiness on that one, and point out how I consider control, confidence and connection to be more important aspects of a happy life than the comfort of positive physical sensations, but I want to take a different approach on that one this time. For a basic standard as to what are considered to be the basic elements of human life that we each strive for, and that we wish to prevent ourselves from missing out on, let’s look at one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies:
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts,
Familiar? (As You Like It, act 2, scene 7.) So perhaps we can look at the parts we are expected to play in life as the basis for what we wish to maintain––what we don’t want to allow our addictions to steal from us. One measure of a good life would be to play those parts with intensity and finesse. And the measure of the harmfulness of any addiction would be its capacity to steal from us that which makes our life performances most impressive and satisfying.
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Fine, but aside from the dogma of breast being best, there’s little risk of modern addictions stealing anything important from this phase, so let’s move on.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school.
And as a teacher I’ve seen plenty of those “morning faces” over the years. In the past four centuries we’ve been working on making school more attractive for those playing this part, with very limited success. Can we blame this on the ways in which television, excessive amounts of refined sugar and instant gratification through interactive entertainment have reduced their capacities for concentration, making our attempts to better capture their attention futile? How much additional blame can we put on caffeinated stimulants finding their ways into the mouths of children at ever younger ages? Frankly, some, I believe, but probably not much. It would probably be fairer to just admit that the level of social conformity that children are expected to acquire in their school years is has remained as naturally distasteful for kids these days as it was back in Shakespeare’s time. Don’t get me wrong; I fully accept that ADHD is a real medical condition, but the loose way in which I’ve heard even university researchers use the expression “ADHD-like symptoms” indicates more than a little sloppy exaggeration of the new problems teachers face based on new forms of addictive behaviors exhibited by their pupils. So moving on…
And then the lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
You’ve got to love the way that old Will, the master of ballads celebrating every part of the female anatomy, jokes about the youthful romantic’s infatuation with everything about his object of desire, right down to her eyebrows. Women have always been physically objectified by men. But the question is, has sexualized mass media in general, and pornography in particular, made this problem worse? Are young men being excited by the media to absolutely uncontrollable levels? Or on the other hand, is the excess of artificial stimulation––in terms of the abundance of images of feminine beauty available to young men these days––numbing them to erotic and romantic excitement in its more simple forms: struggling forward with the hope of maybe someday getting some? How much damage is pin-up culture and porn doing to the Shakespearean sense of romance? To be honest with you, that is a significant question unto itself, but it would be too long and emotionally charged a debate to try to summarize in this format. Suffice to say, I’m not part of the school of thought which blames marriage problems these days on porn, and teenagers have been having “impure thoughts” about each other since long before the advent of any mass media, so I’m not going to worry about that one too much.
Then a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth.
Here at least it would seem that modern addictions of sorts are actually doing some good. Street gangs still exist, but more often testosterone fired aggressions have found relatively harmless outlets in gaming, sports and other less bloody forms of competition. One no longer needs to prove one’s manhood by trying to literally kill off those who would challenge it. As dangerous as war simulation and fantasy violence games may be in some respects, they will always be a far cry safer than the real thing. And it might well be that young men in particular will always need such a cathartic outlet for their aggressions.
It could also be historically argued that the fact that those conscripted to military service in Shakespeare’s time were given immense amounts of beer to drink, for lack of safe water supplies in many places, could have further increased these dangerous aggressive tendencies back then. Thus the drunkenness and other forms of intoxication addiction that make inner city streets unsafe these days are really nothing new. These issues of gang violence are real problems for us to deal with, but they are not new problems, and they may well be too deeply ingrained in our hormonal programming to entirely eliminate any time soon.
But there is yet another aspect of this brash and quarrelsome role that men in particular are expected to play in their “fourth act”: how does this figure into the process of cut-throat competitive career building in the corporate world today? Is there still a need to self-destructively spar with others to attain what the Bard calls “the bubble reputation”? Is this aspect of masculinity ultimately a good or a bad thing? My own take: competitiveness needs to be subject to moderation: not enough and we become complacent and non-productive; too much and we become unstable and dangerous. Most addictions which do not cause a direct increase in violent behavior tend to decrease the person’s overall competitiveness. Our society as a whole, however, has never been more intensely competitive and stressfully fast paced. Thus, if anything, some of these so-called addictive behaviors may be moving society in a healthy direction.
And then the justice, in fair round belly with good capon lined, with eyes severe and beard of formal cut, full of wise saws and modern instances; and so he plays his part.
The peak of one’s life accomplishments and respectability in the Elizabethan period would come after one had gained a certain rank on the social ladder through acting out all of those youthful aggressions. At this point the man no longer needed to prove how tough and bad he was; he could show that he was someone to be reckoned with by his various status symbols and authoritative declarations. These days it would be driving a Beemer and being worthy of mention in some corporate annual report. Of course one never reaches this sort of esteemed status level if drinking or drugs or other means of amusing oneself half to death have prevented the person from competing to build such a career. But then the question remains, how important is this sort of status? Is this really the ultimate goal in life? While amusement for its own sake is unlikely to be more important than “making something out of yourself”, there may be better ways of proving to yourself that you are genuinely excellent at something, which would be more healthy and satisfying in the long run, than gaining status in a more traditional sense. When Socrates got out of the army he famously chose to sit around and talk about philosophy rather than taking up this sort of respectable white collar position. Should we condemn him for being the premiere social networking addict of his day? His wife certainly did. Some today might well agree with her. I’m not among them.
The sixth age shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side; his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound.
There comes the point when the respectable career must inevitably fade, even today. What then is the person left with? Old farts trying to pretend to still be something they are no longer physically capable of being are a cliché punch line in some cases; Shakespeare was neither the first not the last to use them as such. There are, however, many possibilities for such people to maintain lives of dignity and self-esteem. One important aspect of getting there is summed up in the name of an on-line group my son told me that he had joined: “Live so that you won’t have to lie when you end up in a nursing home.” That’s certainly a worthy goal. If your life has been a story of slavery to various addictions, of course that won’t leave you with much other than lies to talk about when you finally hit the old folks’ home. But if your life has been nothing more than going through the motions of a dull gray routine career, you won’t be much better prepared to look back on it with satisfaction than the addict will be. Life should be a series of projects and adventures, each of which you can take a certain pride in.
Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
In a paraphrase of a t-shirt text I saw some decades ago, “He who has the most toys at the end of his life… still dies.” And in those final days before we go, if we are fortunate enough to make it that far, old age captures us all. Are there things which can make this passing easier, which can perhaps enable the person to live on in some meaningful sense through the effects their life has had on the world? Of course. What habits then might contribute to having this sort of effect on your world?
When considering the dangers of addictive behaviors, the real questions are, how much do they still allow us to enjoy the middle stages of life; how quickly do they push us towards the later stages; and what do they leave us with when we get there? Each addictive chemical and each compulsive behavior pattern has its own effects in these regards. It’s best to at least stop and consider the risks of each before the habit becomes too strong to break without drastic measures. All things considered though, I’ve decided that I can live with being the same sort of networking “addict” as Socrates.